David Fincher: The Best Director of Our Time?

02/01/2016 12:45 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2017

David Fincher will tell you with a straight face that he began thinking seriously about directing movies when he was eight years old. When he got older he worked on movie sets until he knew every crew member's job. Then at 19, instead of going to film school, he went to work for Industrial Light & Magic, where he was an assistant cameraman on Return of the Jedi (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). He left ILM to direct a memorable commercial for the American Cancer Society; it shows a fetus smoking a cigarette, to warn expectant mothers against smoking while pregnant. The spot got him noticed, and led to many more commercials--and music videos. He directed videos for Aerosmith, Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul and George Michael, almost single-handedly creating the signature visual atmosphere of late '80s MTV. That high-contrast light and shadow effect from Madonna's Vogue? That's a young Fincher polishing his trade.

Fincher's big break really came along when he was tapped to direct his first feature: Alien 3. Ridley Scott and James Cameron had launched the franchise with their blockbuster installments, but Fincher crafted a movie that was dark and pessimistic, claustrophobic and oppressive, using low camera angles and showing ceilings, which subconsciously makes the viewer feel boxed in. "Some people go to the movies to be reminded that everything's okay. I don't make those kinds of movies," Fincher once remarked. Much of Alien 3 is also suffused with orange, and Fincher's distinctive use of the color palette would similarly mark later efforts. Each of his films has a strong visual identity. Shots can be colored with inky blacks, sickly fluorescent greens and yellows or metallic, melancholic blues. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a thousand variations of white, from ice-blue to ivory, where the Swedish winter and cold almost become supporting characters.

Though not prolific compared to some directors (he has directed 10 features since 1992) Fincher's career has been solid both commercially and critically. His first huge movie success was Se7en, a grim story of two detectives tracking down a serial killer who patterns his murders on the seven deadly sins. Se7en is relentlessly dark and gloomy, with rain falling in nearly every scene until the iconic desert denouement. Following this, Fincher made the paranoid mystery thriller The Game, and the cult favorite Fight Club, a brilliant and subversive critique of consumerism based on Chuck Palahniuk's novel. He continued to hone his precise directing style in Panic Room, Zodiac, and The Social Network, about the founding of Facebook. He adapted the novels The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl--both thrillers with strange protagonists that simultaneously frighten and attract us. Most recently, Fincher has directed episodes of the Netflix original series House of Cards, a dark satire of US politics on which he is also an executive producer.

Fincher's style has been described as cold and clinically precise. He embodies the director as auteur, with full control over everything that we experience while watching one of his movies. People who have worked with him say he's smart, thoughtful, and a perfectionist. This is reflected in the way Fincher approaches each of his projects with meticulous care, setting up his shots (some say) like an obsessive-compulsive maniac. From beginning to end, he doesn't want to waste a single shot. In that respect many critics compare him with Kubrick, though their styles are very different. Fincher creates a precise, disembodied smoothness with his tracking shots, sometimes accentuated with CGI. In Fight Club there are numerous shots that pass through walls, floors, and even the inside of the brain, creating an eerie floating feeling. He uses close-ups only sparingly, and has explained that a close-up of an important object or face can only be used a certain number of times before the audience stops paying attention. Such images are intuitively important and Fincher doesn't want to "waste" them.

One thing Fincher loves is pushing boundaries. Both Se7en and Fight Club were considered controversial when they were released; audiences and critics were not always sure of how to respond. His rebellious side still surfaces in comments like, "Hollywood is great. I also think it's stupid, small-minded and shortsighted." Like him or not, it is hard to deny that David Fincher is one of the most interesting, distinctive, and occasionally subversive directors working today. He has yet to win an Oscar, but fifty years from now, critics may look back on him as one of the greatest filmmakers of his era. As Francis Ford Coppola said: "Things that get you fired when you're starting out are also things they give you lifetime achievement awards for later." A lesson to all of us that even if not always in the short term, great rewards sometimes lie ahead for those willing to take risks, buck trends, surprise, confuse - and maybe even upset - the status quo.